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Harvard Should Step in Before Its Next Student Financial Scandal

Harvard’s Hidden Hypocrisies

The Student Organization Center at Hilles (SOCH) is located in the Radcliffe Quadrangle.
The Student Organization Center at Hilles (SOCH) is located in the Radcliffe Quadrangle. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Adelaide E. Parker, Contributing Opinion Writer
Adelaide E. Parker ’26, a Crimson News Editor and FM Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Harvard’s Hidden Hypocrisies,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

It’s a classic Harvard story. An intrepid undergraduate joins a campus club. Immediately, they realize how valuable the Harvard brand is. They watch their club draw in tens of thousands of dollars from Harvard-labeled sponsorships, performances, or high school conferences. They climb the club’s ranks until they’re put in charge of these finances themselves.

Then, money starts to go missing.

In 1994, two Harvard students were indicted for stealing over $130,000 from a campus fundraiser meant to help cancer patients. The next year, a student took $7,500 from Currier’s House Committee. In 2002, another two students pled guilty to embezzling almost $100,000 from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals and nearly ended up in jail.

More recently, in 2022, an audit obtained by The Crimson noted a risk of errors and misuse of funds by Harvard’s former student government body, the Undergraduate Council — though specific instances were not cited.

And last spring, the former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative transferred approximately $30,000 from the club’s bank account to her own private account — after the club had spent a whopping $4,000 of HUFPI funds buying and caring for a Corgi.

Like clockwork, these scandals keep recurring. But since the first scandal whose records I’ve seen – which involved Harvard’s Model United Nations nearly 50 years ago, in 1975 – the Harvard administration has done little to actually prevent club embezzlement.

When students have stolen money, Harvard’s administration has refused to substantively change their policies governing student organizations, citing the importance of club autonomy. But by prioritizing independence over accountability, Harvard is avoiding costly but necessary action and enabling theft — not protecting student interests.

How Clubs Are (and Aren’t) Regulated

Harvard clubs are regulated by two groups. One is student-run: the Harvard Undergraduate Association, Harvard College’s student government. The other, the Dean of Students Office, is made up of administrators who are tasked with overseeing campus residential and social life. Generally, the DSO makes the rules that govern Harvard clubs, while the HUA distributes funding and helps approve new groups.

Club autonomy is very important to the DSO, and they adopt a hands-off approach when supervising club finances. Though the DSO requires all Harvard clubs to register for a Harvard University Employees Credit Union account, they’re not able to see clubs’ account transactions, nor do they require clubs to submit detailed accounts of their spending. The DSO sees itself as more of a counselor than a policeman — a group meant to guide Harvard clubs, not enforce harsh rules upon them.

“The groups are free to make their own decisions,” Associate Dean for Student Engagement Jason R. Meier told me last week. “And as such, we don't monitor finances.”

Club autonomy is important, and having an administration prioritize it is often extremely beneficial to students. Leading clubs’ day-to-day operations gives students valuable financial and administrative experience. Independence from the College is also vital when clubs hold Harvard accountable — especially for groups like The Crimson, whose reporting may shed light on sensitive University issues.

In 2002, two former Harvard undergraduates stole $100,000 from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals and were sentenced to probation.
In 2002, two former Harvard undergraduates stole $100,000 from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals and were sentenced to probation. By Jung H. Paik

A Barrage of Band-Aids

Despite the merits of its approach, Harvard’s insistence on club autonomy has become a shield to avoid implementing expensive, but necessary, accountability measures. Since the HUFPI scandal last spring, the DSO passed several new policies aimed at promoting more responsible financial management, but they were all cheap and surface-level. None targeted the root of the problem.

The DSO has recently offered financial management workshops. While this is a step in the right direction, training mainly prevents the accidental mismanagement of funds. It does less to prevent intentional theft.

The DSO also created a form where students can report club issues to campus leadership, including allegations of theft and financial misconduct. This is a good idea, but unfortunately, it has been poorly implemented.

There is no option for students to submit reports anonymously, severely disincentivizing them from disclosing misconduct. Even under normal circumstances, students might be hesitant to speak out against club mismanagement for fear of being kicked out or passed over for future positions. When reporting embezzlement, this reluctance could be exacerbated by the worry that students could also be dragged into complicated legal proceedings.

Club spending is still not monitored by the DSO; instead, the College relies entirely on the HUA to carry out occasional random club audits.

Twenty percent of clubs have failed these audits, according to HUA Co-Treasurer Corbin C. Lubianski ’24, and the consequences for failure are limited. Often, clubs that partially fail remain as registered student organizations and continue to receive some amount of HUA funding, reduced in proportion to the severity of their financial offense.

Random audits from Harvard’s student government are insufficient to contend with such a regular problem. To put it bluntly, it appears the HUA lacks the funding, time, and resources needed to act as an effective financial policeman. Additionally, as students themselves, HUA members have little incentive to spend time investigating and reporting their peers for embezzlement.

In the absence of actual solutions to regulating student organizations, it seems the DSO has slapped a band-aid on the issue. The DSO recently instituted a freeze on new clubs, preventing members of the College from creating new student organizations.

Meier told me this decision was not a result of the HUFPI scandal, but instead came about because the DSO did not have enough resources to support and monitor existing clubs.

“The infrastructure to support them was so minimal,” he said.

This is yet another instance of the DSO encountering issues with clubs and falling back on the cheapest solution. But the path forward is not obvious given the resource constraints the DSO faces.

The Way Forward

Harvard’s clubs are worth millions. If the University is going to officially recognize student groups and allow the HUA to disburse funding drawn from Harvard’s student activities fee to them, they also have the responsibility to ensure that money is managed responsibly. Investing more in the DSO and strengthening the way student clubs are monitored is clearly the correct next step.

In the short term, the DSO should allow students to anonymously report club misconduct. This would enable students to report embezzlement issues without worrying about legal and social consequences. Implementing this step would be completely free and presumably quite simple.

Moving forward, Harvard should allocate more money and responsibility to the DSO. The University should not rely on HUA members, club leadership, and other students to self-report embezzlement. As administrators, DSO members have more time and expertise with which to conduct effective audits than HUA officers do.

After taking over the auditing process, the DSO should increase the consequences for failing — or even partially failing — an audit, perhaps by disbanding noncompliant student groups, more drastically reducing the financing afforded to these clubs, or temporarily prohibiting organizations found guilty of financial intransigence from using the Harvard name.

Valuing club autonomy does not mean the University can turn a blind eye to embezzlement. Harvard needs to move beyond band-aid measures and address the real problems that enable student theft.

If they don’t, it’s only a matter of time before the next scandal strikes.

Adelaide E. Parker ’26, a Crimson News Editor and FM Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Harvard’s Hidden Hypocrisies,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

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